The holiday season is traditionally a time when children get excited about receiving toys.
But 500 area middle school students learned the gift of giving back when their school collected more than 1,000 toys in honor of Zahra Baker.
River Bend Middle School will donate 1,029 new and gently used stuffed animals to Hickory Police Department's Cops for Tots program and Conover Police Department's Santa Cops.
"Zahra is in a better place now," said Brooke Huffman, a River Bend seventh-grader. "We felt toys were a great way to comfort others who were hurting."
Cops for Tots and Santa Cops provide gifts for area children who wouldn't have toys on Christmas.
The stuffed-animal drive started about three weeks ago when River Bend's Junior Beta Club decided to collect toys for its monthly service project.
Club advisor and social studies teacher Melinda Hamilton said the club's original goal was to collect 250 stuffed animals by Dec. 10.
When student and community support helped the club achieve its goal of 250 animals in one day, the 50-member club decided to continue collecting toys.
Members upped the ante and set their next goal for 500 animals, which amounts to about one stuffed animal for each of River Bend's students.
That goal was reached the second day of the drive, and again, the school didn't stop there.
River Bend received its 1,029th stuffed animal Friday when a father and son brought in toys to donate to the school's ever-growing toy land.
The school lobby became an unofficial donation location, with stuffed animals of all shapes, sizes, colors and characters piled together and encircling the school's Christmas tree.
"Every where you go, you can tell everybody is affected by (Zahra's death)," said River Bend seventh-grader Pang Yang. "Everyone wanted to help out, and we thought this was a great way to do it."
The decision to hold a stuffed animal drive came before students' Thanksgiving vacation as they were decorating the school Christmas tree.
"They thought, 'Wouldn't it be awesome to have toys displayed here in the lobby by the Christmas tree?'" Hamilton said.
The stuffed animal drive was completely student-run, and Hamilton couldn't be more proud of her students.
"The sad, sad situation with Zahra probably created more contributions," Hamilton said. "She's a little girl who could easily be a student here in this building."
As the contributions continue, students are surprised each time they walk by the growing display in the school's lobby.
Students walked through the lobby Friday, some pointing at their donations, while others commented about how many animals were collected.
"I think it's awesome because it's for a good cause," said seventh-grader Mason Beard. "We need to do something to make a difference for others."
A red numbered graph accompanies the stuffed animal display, which shows the school's progress on achieving its collection goals.
The graph Friday was accompanied by a sign reading, "Thank you River Bend. We did it," with the latest stuffed animal donation number included below.
Students will present collected stuffed animals Monday to six representatives from the law enforcement community in a school-wide assembly.
Hamilton said school resource Officer Trent Davis helped coordinate the relationship with area law enforcement agencies and organized the partnership between the school and police programs.
"This is a great project for the students," Hamilton said, "because when you do great things, it rubs off on others. (Students) didn't do it for the publicity. They did it because they wanted to help out."